From radical past to city’s lungs – past, present and future of urban commons explored

Bristol is one of the four urban commons that will be looked at in depth

Experts are leading a major new project to explore the past, present and future of the public green spaces at the heart of our towns and cities.

The project will look at how urban commons – open, public land that is surrounded by urban areas – have been used over the centuries and the range of legal protections currently in place. It will also investigate how people use these spaces today and how they could be used by future generations.

Four urban commons will be looked at in depth – the Town Moor, Newcastle, Mousehold Heath, Norwich, Clifton Down, Bristol and Valley Gardens, Brighton. Each of them have different origins, varying legal status and differ in their historical and current uses.

The three-year project, led by Newcastle University, will bring together experts in law, archaeology, history, English, architecture and creative practice with Dr John Clarke from the University of Exeter, researchers from the Universities of Brighton, the National Trust and local community and cultural partners.

The project, which has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, will culminate in 2021 in a ‘Festival of the Common’ which will be held in Newcastle and Brighton. This will include exhibitions of the research findings, poetry and other creative writing workshops and a ‘Common Place’ book where people will be able to record their memories of the common in their city.

Dr Clarke said: ‘Urban commons are full of the written and unwritten, the heard and unheard voices that have played across them and delved into their surfaces, drawing pleasure and sustenance from the space they afford. As one of poetry’s functions is to listen and reveal, this is a gift for a poet to work with, particular as these are often places where important political events have been played out both formally and informally.’

Over the years, many urban commons have been used as sites for popular protests and acts of resistance. For example, Clifton Down witnessed a gathering of some 10,000 people in September 1908 to support the Suffragette movement. And in April 1921, two aircraft and a hangar at the aerodrome on Newcastle’s Town Moor were destroyed by arson carried out by an Irish Republican Army cell that was based in Newcastle.

Although some of these areas have been established for centuries, there is no agreed definition of what a common is, or any central register of commons. While local authorities own many of them today, some are still privately owned. As a result, there is huge variation in the degree of legal protection – Valley Gardens in Brighton is protected only through planning law while Clifton Down is protected by an Act of Parliament. The Town Moor, also, has been protected by an Act of Parliament since the eighteenth century and is currently managed under the terms of another – the Newcastle upon Tyne Town Moor Act 1988.

One strand of the project will explore the variety of legal definitions and protections in place and will look at what a standard definition should cover and how the idea of common ownership could fit within a legal framework.

Another strand of the work will focus on the different histories of each of the four urban commons. They range in age from medieval to Victorian, but there are some similarities in how they have been used in the past. Both Mousehold Heath and the Town Moor have had military connections – during the Napeoleonic wars, the government rented 11 acres of the Town Moor for an artillery depot and barracks, and traces of training trenches that were used during the First World War are still visible in places, while at different times during World War Two, Mousehold Heath was used as a US Army Air Force base and a prisoner of war camp.

The four areas have also been popular locations for recreation. In the 18th century, as Bristol expanded and Clifton became a fashionable place to live, Clifton Down stopped being used for grazing animals and was instead opened up to the public for leisure activities. Horse racing took place on both the Town Moor and Mousehold Heath during the 19th century, and since 1882 the Town Moor has been used by the Hoppings, Europe’s largest travelling funfair.

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